Japan – The Origins and Evolution of the Samurai

Welcome back to the ABC world history series! For my contribution I have J for Japan, and obviously I was going to write something about warfare. The first thing to come to mind when considering Japanese warfare history would undoubtedly be the samurai. Of course we all know about their modern reputation as honourable masters of the katana, but this was not always their way, and misrepresents the majority of the role they played in Japanese society throughout time. As with most things in history I think it’s interesting to look back where things began, so today I’ll be taking a look at the origins of the samurai, and how they evolved through the centuries.

China has influenced Japan more than any other nation, and the relationship between the two has had a massive impact on history. In the mid-seventh century Japan widely adopted many Chinese-style institutions. The Taihō Codes of 702, a set of statutes written in Chinese and inspired by Chinese models, mandated a stable, centralized state in control of a reformed military system emphasizing peasant infantry. Things began to change break down eventually however, and thanks to a political vacuum created by an ineffective central government between 900 – 1100, local leaders were forced to arm themselves and take matters into their own hands against many rebellions. These warriors of the countryside soon banded together, linked by ties of dependence and based in private estates on land they had claimed themselves. Eventually they were wholly relied upon for control of rural Japan, and finally in 1185 Yoritomo seized leadership of this new class and established a feudal system which allotted land to them in exchange for their martial service. Hence those previously known as bushi (warrior) started to take on the name of samurai, literally meaning ‘servant’, although until the seventeenth century it may have been an insult to refer to these them as such.

Overall this story is the commonly accepted history of how the samurai came to prominence in Japan, however it does gloss over a lot of the details. So to find out more we need to go back to the time of the early Chinese-styled Japanese military. The Japanese imperial government was vigorous during the early Heian period. Emperor Kanmu’s avoidance of drastic reform decreased the intensity of political struggles, and he became recognized as one of Japan’s most forceful emperors. Imperial control was spreading across the majority of Japan by this time, and thrust north with an army based mainly on the Chinese heavy infantry model of the Tang dynasty. Eventually however, they came upon people known as the Emishi (shrimp barbarians), or Mojin (Hairy people) of north-eastern Honshu. This distinct group had developed horse archery tactics similar to those of the Huns and Mongols. Although archery had been a major martial skill in Japan since prehistory, and there had been some use of cavalry by those that could afford it, the two had never been combined in an effective fighting force by the Japanese before. The more static infantry of the Japanese struggled to deal with these highly mobile and effective fighters, so eventually their tactics were adopted and the Emishi were gradually assimilated after 801 when they had finally been subjugated. This resilient group had a profound impact on the formation of the first Samurai, and it has been said that the very core of the Japanese spirit is the ‘ghost of the Emishi’.

Gosannen War Picture Scroll – Depicting mounted samurai archers

As the Heian Japanese began to look less towards outward expansion and defence from foreign threats, and more to the suppression of rebellions, the many families of the Emishi created networks of semi-autonomous feudal domains as described before. They were given the name of ‘samurai’ by warriors in the Heian capital who sought to distinguish themselves from the ‘unsophisticated louts’ in the provinces. This is one of the first misconceptions of the Samurai that must be corrected; they were not just katana wielding swordsmen with fancy armour. It is likely that the very first proto-Samurai were in fact these same rural Emishi horse archers which the emperors came to favour in suppressing internal unrest. As the Heian period continued, the central government in modern Kyoto became less and less interested in actually running the country. This allowed the Samurai to become more independent and entrenched, and allowed them to gain more power.

Eventually members of the Samurai class took control of the country, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate, the first shogunate in Japanese history. A Shogun was technically a high-ranking samurai ruling in the emperor’s name, but in reality they were the military dictator, while the emperor was just a figurehead. Sometimes in Japanese history however, even the Shogun was a puppet ruler, and the actual holders of influence were the powerful feudal landholders, or the Daimyo.

Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace – the primary battle of the Heiji Rebellion

By 1333 wars with the Mongols had weakened the Kamakura, and the first shogunate fell. After more political manoeuvring and an attempted Imperial restoration, the Ashikaga shogunate eventually came to power in. Never as powerful as their Kamakura predecessors, the Ashikaga slowly began to lose their hold on local Daimyos and, when a Samurai feud for Kyoto began between the Hosokawa and Yamana, the Shogunate effectively lost all control over the provinces. One of the most famous eras in Samurai history, the Sengoku Jidai, was about to begin. By the end of the Onin War, Japan was essentially split into hundreds of separate feudal domains ruled by their Daimyos, literally ‘great names’. Many of the common myths and legends about the samurai took root during this era, and likely many did happen. This was the ‘golden age’ of samurai warfare and one of the periods that later samurai would look back on, romanticise and attempt to emulate. By this time the warrior code known as Bushido (the way of the warrior) had become an important part of what defined a samurai’s behaviour and lifestyle. The concepts that make up early Bushido originate in the Kamakura period, but it was in the 15th and 16th centuries when it would start to be referenced in stories and treaties.

A contest between two famous warlords is an example of the honour samurai became famous for. Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen had a rivalry which, unlike many of the more cutthroat conflicts during the Sengoku Jidai, was more like an annual competition between sophisticated gentlemen. They would meet at the same place every year to battle one another and then go back home. On one occasion when another clan disrupted the Takeda’s salt supplies, Kenshin sent his own as a replacement. He stated courteously that he chose to fight his adversaries with swords, and not salt.

As the sixteenth century progressed gentlemanly conduct became less and less common. European traders in the south of Japan had introduced early firearms such as the Arquebus. While the Japanese were not unfamiliar with gunpowder, this new technology changed the battlefield dramatically. A common misconception, popularised by films such as The Last Samurai, is that Samurai did not adopt firearms because they were viewed as dishonourable. Some Japanese were indeed shocked by the new weapons, viewing them as impractical and ineffective, rather than dishonourable. However, most Daimyo who could buy them did and experienced success because of it. In contrast to their popular portrayal as paragons of truthfulness and honesty samurai did not restrain themselves from even the worst kinds of betrayal in situations where it could benefit them. As Oda Nobunaga was on his way to conquering Japan and possibly unifying it, he was betrayed by a seemingly loyal general; Akechi Mitsuhide, who claimed the title of shogun for himself.

After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 Japan was unified once again under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The sudden cessation of warfare in the country left the martial samurai class with little to occupy their time. They were solidified as a hereditary class and gradually began to find work as clerks in their lord’s storehouses, night watchmen, tax collectors, security guards, courtiers and administrators – all the while still dressed for the battlefields of old, a symbolic mark of prestige. They essentially began to occupy positions in what we could call the civil service of the shogunate. In stark contrast to their formerly austere nature, some Samurai during the peaceful Tokugawa era began having extravagant swords created which they could not possibly hope to wield in combat, and started to wear their hair in outlandish styles. While the warrior ethos of Bushido remained, the actual samurai began to lose their military training and became a symbol of Japan’s past, rather than the protectors of its future. To match their new civil roles, Bushido was gradually modified to include values such as etiquette and politeness, which would serve them well in their bureaucratic occupations. Their martial training generally continued throughout the era, but it was more of an art form rather than preparation for real battle. Practical battle training and weaponry were sidelined in favour of styles such as Kendo, the way of the sword. It is from this development that the katana wielding samurai was popularised in contrast to the actual, practical ways in which they fought as mounted archers and the bulk of Japanese armies rather than an elite minority.

photograph of a samurai, taken by Italian–British photographer Felice Beato, c. 1860

In this period agriculture became less of a crucial aspect of the Japanese economy. Because of this the stipend that the Samurai were paid by the state began to decrease. This caused animosity between Samurai and the rising merchant class, who began to get rich from the changes in the system. This trend continued into the late Tokugawa period and only got worse, to the extent where many of the poorer samurai were on the level of peasants in terms of wealth. This led to unrest among the Samurai class and eventually masterless Samurai, known as Ronin, increasingly became skilled bandits in order to make more money. Eventually, under pressure from outside powers, the Tokugawa shogunate was replaced by the Japanese Empire and the samurai were essentially sidelined. The fact that the samurai of old now no longer existed only fueled further misconceptions and romanticism – and this allowed the new Japanese nation state to warp Bushido into a philosophy which was used to signify a good citizen. The intensity that these new values created in the new nation of Japan burned white hot until the Second World War. After the subsequent surrender, Bushido was reconsidered and became more of a historical monument.

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